Logos and branding are now terrorist weapons


Terrorists are getting more corporate these days. Last month, there was the discovery of a ten-page Al Qaeda memo giving a North African regional manager a poor performance review for lousy work attitude, lack of initiative and failure to file expense reports. Now, says a June 23 review, there’s a book about terrorist organizations’ branding efforts.

The business of terrorism

“Branding Terror: The Logotypes and Iconography of Insurgent Groups and Terrorist Organizations” shows how such outfits as Hamas, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda use visual branding techniques for the same purposes that less malignant organizations do – recruiting, employee loyalty, consumer awareness, share of mind, and differentiation from competitors in the same markets and product categories.

It’s just that the markets and categories here happen to be insurrection, kidnapping, suicide bombing and beheading.

After all, as co-author Artur Beifuss writes in the book’s introduction,

Branding, marketing and the visual communication of ideas and messages are tools that are used not only by corporations and political parties. Every organization that tries to put a message across, to influence an audience and to stand out in a highly competitive sector, or even to mark a claimed territory… needs a well-defined visual identity.

Design, not politics

As a United Nations counter-terrorism analyst, Beifuss makes no political judgments in the book.

So rather than compiling their own lists of terrorist organizations, he and his co-author, graphic designer Francisco Bellini, used established lists from the US, the European Union, Australia, Russia and India for their examples.

For all those groups on the lists that have flags or logos, Bellini visually breaks down each logo, identifies its key visual elements in a black-and-white outline, and specifies the exact Pantone, CMYK and RGB colors for each. (Terrorists who made the lists but don’t have logos didn’t make the book.)

‘Best practices’

While Bellini was busy with that, Beifuss was going through open sources in Arabic, German, Russian, French, Spanish and English “to verify and validate the origins of the logotypes, and succinctly write up the history, ideologies and capabilities of the organizations.”

One thing that this research showed was that just like businesses, terrorist organizations’ branding seems to all follow a common set of, uh, “best practices.”

  • Stars – Most European terrorist groups have stars in their logos, to communicate that their insurgencies are left-wing.
  • Geography – The Al-Quassam Brigade, Hamas and other Middle Eastern terrorists like to use images of landmarks like the Dome of the Rock to visually communicate their “service areas.” Others, like Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, use maps for the same purpose.
  • Rifles – Many, particularly in the Middle East and Central Asia, illustrate their “product” by showing weapons. The favorite weapon, to the point of being a cliche, is the AK-47 rifle (Al Qaeda in  the Maghreb, Hezbollah), while a few show their enemies’ weapon, like the Al-Qassam Brigade, whose logo features the Israel Defense Forces’ standard-issue firearm, the M-16.
  • Swords –  Swords connote both jihad and attempted historical legitimacy, which is why the Army of Islam and Hamas logos include them.
  • Colors – Green, black, red, white and yellow appear over and over again – often with different values, though, to supposedly help brand differentiation.
  • Quotes – Islamic terrorists groups’ logos incorporate “all very aggressive, out-of-context suras from the Koran” in their logos, Beifuss told the Times of Israel.
  • Amateurism – In Beifuss’ assessment, Hezbollah and Hamas “look like the only ones with professional media departments. There is no question that Hezbollah’s logo was done by designers, and that they are using it as part of a sophisticated communications strategy.”

That last observation doesn’t mean that we should underestimate amateur terrorist art directors. Look what one did in Germany in 1920 with an ancient Sanskrit good-luck symbol called the swastika.


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